Learning to Love Well and Need "the Other"


(system) #1

Inspiring books take us on moving, mind-expanding journeys, and Samir Selmanovic’s book It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian is no exception. Samir invites us to travel and broaden our horizons on multiple levels: temporally, spatially, and especially spiritually. Through personal stories we are drawn forward toward the promise of a better future, catching glimpses of Samir’s life from childhood through the present. The narrative transports us from small town Eastern Europe to big city USA and from sea to shining sea. In addition, insightful theological commentary and stories of ‘the other,’ those from unfamiliar faiths, cultures, backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, genders, orientations, political affiliations, etc., help us spiritually step back from modern atheism and the relatively young Islam, to Christianity with Jewish roots, along excursions into other faiths and beliefs, and finally in essence to a time before these major religions diverged when we received the promise of becoming a blessing for all nations.

Of course, there is no idyllic past to step back into. We have always faced challenges and found it necessary to adapt. During the great reformation approximately 500 years ago, a confluence of sociological, scientific, and technological changes, discoveries, and inventions led to a dramatic shift in theological understanding and brought about a new protestant way to be Christian. Today, a similar dramatic confluence is occurring, and we are in another tumultuous process of discovering a new way to be religious.

Until now, most of the books I have read that recognize this current shift, which Phyllis Tickle named and described in her book The Great Emergence, have been written with the convergence of various streams within Christianity in mind. Samir expands the conversation exponentially to include all of humanity. His new book makes an impassioned and personal plea for us recognize the image of God in the other as an initial step toward emerging from our vicious cycle of self-sufficiency into receiving from the other, depending on the other, and actually needing the other.

Of course, some will express concern that Samir is attempting to throw the doors to the Kingdom of God open too wide and with a universal sweep declaring that all roads lead to God. However, the universalism in his book is the illimitable presence of God and God’s Kingdom, not the equal validity of all beliefs. The difference as I see it is illustrated in my favorite line from Paul Young’s recent top-selling novel, The Shack. In an imagined exchange with Jesus, the main character questions: "'Does that mean,' asked Mack, 'that all roads will lead to you?' 'Not at all,' smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. 'Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.'"

As Samir reminds us, Christianity maintains that God is small enough to fit inside a human frame; therefore, Christianity should also be able to affirm that God is small enough to be at work in every religion and ideology no matter how cramped. He maintains that our obsession with a ‘big God’ is a misrepresentation of the God who sought us out when we were ‘the other.’ So with Samir as a guide, we travel down many different roads discovering that God has preceded us. We find Wiccans who pray a healing prayer for hurting Christians, Muslim Imams who encourage new Christian converts, and Christian congregations who give standing ovations for the love shown by Atheists. In these stories and many more, we learn through our tears and laughter that a different world is not only possible, but in the words of Arundhati Roy whom Selmanovic quotes, “She's on her way.”

There is so much I resonated with in this book that I have difficulty offering a substantial critique. One disappointment was that the theological comments, which will be familiar to those acquainted with other brilliant theologians such as Peter Rollins and Miroslav Volf, are tantalizingly brief. I would also have enjoyed more practical examples describing ways in which members of different faith communities have been able to bless one another. Although, in dealing with broad concepts as Samir does, we are given the freedom to imagine ways in which we can make local applications. Finally, in treading onto this holy, uncharted territory of holding our own beliefs humbly in order to seek God in the other, I found more questions were raised than answers given, which was both stimulating and at times frustrating.

Everything else I found spot on. I even thoroughly enjoyed reading the list of acknowledgements. Which I mention because it is unique to my experience with this book and it highlights that we can affirm our distinctive beliefs while still becoming interdependent. In the long list of acknowledgements, along with many names I didn’t know, I recognized familiar emergent authors and prominent theologians whose names I would love to casually drop in conversation along with friends from Adventist grade school and people I have rubbed shoulders with at Adventist colleges and conferences. The confluence of the two groups of people was thoroughly fascinating and oddly comforting. In the book, Samir acknowledges his own perspective as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian pastor. Without becoming preachy, he makes warm reference to our particular beliefs such as: Sabbath, Second Coming, our wholistic human nature, and the lack of an eternal hell. He also shares a poignant story about our Seventh-day Adventist ritual of footwashing. But then, as the diverse list of names suggests, his unique Adventist perspective has not become an isolation cell preventing further exploration and conversation. Rather, his distinctive beliefs have grown into a nurturing vantage point from which to explore broad new vistas and learn from many others.

Samir credits his God-given passion and talent for bringing disparate groups into conversation to his Adventist faith and our experience as a unique remnant people struggling to be inclusive as well as our history of being ‘the other’ to other Christians. This is particularly evident in his latest wide-eyed endeavor as a founder and Christian co-leader of Faith House Manhattan with the prodigious mission of bringing all faiths together under one roof in an “experiential inter-religious community that comes together to deepen our personal and communal journeys, share ritual life and devotional space, and foster a commitment to social justice and healing the world.” As if interfaith dialogue on the minimal points of agreement were not rare and difficult enough, now we are expected to actually experience our neighbor’s faith, share our unique rituals, learn to receive from someone on another theological path, and heal the world while we’re at it? Impossible.

Yet, this is exactly what we must do. Because God’s future ideally includes everyone, it is essential that we learn to love one another well now. Samir does not call us to eviscerate religion and homogenize belief into a bland, insipid spirituality. Rather, he encourages us to learn to revel in our distinctive religions while overcoming the increasing isolationistic response to globalization. Our individual faiths will not be able to thrive or even survive without interdependence and reimagining what it means for the mystery of God to create a void at the center of our collective search for present truth.

We are facing daunting social, economic, health, and environmental challenges and to meet them will require all of our faith, ingenuity, imagination, and cooperation. The stakes are far too high for us to continue our divisive and too often deadly sibling rivalries. This book is full of potential to inspire us all to appreciate our fundamental relatedness to one another and to God. As more people recognize this and choose along with Selmanovic to learn to love well and with humility embrace the image of God in the other, we will become more prepared to deal with the present global crises, our distinctive religions will flourish, and our journey will more closely approach the soon coming Kingdom of God.

Brenton Reading writes from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he lives with his wife Nola and plays with their two young sons Logan and Landon. He also enjoys reading and discussing theology and in the time between is currently completing his radiology training with a fellowship in pediatric radiology.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1866